David Gelernter on Herbert Gelernter, 1929-2015Sep 7, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 48 • By DAVID GELERNTER
The difference between man and woman is the force that hauls life forward (as the Talmud remarks) and the origin of everything that is most beautiful in our world. I thought I understood that, but I didn’t until my father died. The whole can transcend the sum of parts, and that’s why Judaism deems marriage sacred. I never truly understood that either.
The death of a loved one rips us like shrapnel, but the wound heals and we limp gamely on. A father’s death is one of the harder hits life offers as it fights to knock you down. There is nobility in a boxer’s fighting until the last bell, although he is hurt and bound to lose. Every one of us has that kind of nobility. We acquire it as boxers do, blow by blow. Don’t sell us short. We are tough.
My father Herbert Gelernter, of blessed memory, died in May at 85. He had a remarkable career. His doctorate was in theoretical physics. My mother had supported him throughout graduate school, but it was his duty to support her. So in 1955, his degree complete, he looked for a secure job and a living wage—which he found at IBM.
IBM Research was ablaze with new ideas about computing. “Computer science” was being created, by physicists, mathematicians, and engineers. In the late 1950s, my father became one of the six men who invented artificial intelligence and changed the intellectual world.
He built the first AI program ever to do anything substantial—history’s third overall. His revolutionary software proved theorems in high school geometry and introduced techniques that became fundamental to computing.
But he missed physics and returned to it in the early 1960s; then he missed computing, and spent the rest of his career at the outer limits of AI. His last achievement was a program that discovers syntheses for organic compounds—otherwise a task for Ph.D. chemists. It took him a quarter-century. It remains one of the most sophisticated programs ever built.
IBM wanted to elevate him to senior management. So he left. He had been in love with physics since boyhood (although he loved my mother incomparably more, and we all knew that from the day we were born). Nothing in science or mathematics was foreign to him. The acute curiosity and the powerful, joyful intelligence always sparkling in his eyes—everyone saw it—extended to every corner of nature and everything his children did or cared about.
He wanted to stay near New York, where his parents and my mother’s lived. Between offers from SUNY at Stony Brook and Yale, he chose SUNY; stayed for the rest of his career. In the late ’60s, truckloads of money were being spent on Stony Brook. It was about to become the “Berkeley of the East.” It didn’t. But my father was happy there. Prestige meant nothing to him. (As a graduate student, he had left MIT for the University of Rochester, where his thesis director of choice happened to teach.)
He was the smartest man I ever knew. A master of real life also. He could repair anything from busted TVs to stuck zippers. He was a superb musician. His French was fluent; on trips to Soviet Russia, he talked science in Yiddish. And on sabbaticals in Israel, he mastered “Fill it up, please!” All right: Hebrew was not his strong suit. But he tried.
Yet in the last period of his life he was weak and in pain, and could do almost nothing for himself. My mother did it all.
It never damaged his dignity or hers. It only exalted them both. Sometimes he was sad, more often serene. After all: He had worked all his life to support her. In the end, when she had to support him every moment, it was a labor of love for her as it had always been for him.
He could not equal my mother’s grasp of human character and her sheer kindliness. She lacks his intellectual aggression (all eminent scientists have it), his uncanny grasp of mathematics, music, and everything in between. Husband plus wife equaled a miracle. But every man and wife are a miracle waiting to happen: Manly and womanly virtues are so deeply different—each so desperately essential to the other and to the children. He always knew, God bless him, that her gifts were more important than his. But there was nothing he wouldn’t do for his children, and they all—and his two daughters-in-law—loved him dearly. He lived life in a vibrant major key, but when affliction forced him into the dark relative minor, he was prepared with bigness of heart and soul. He showed us the sanctity of a life that puts first things first.
Christopher Caldwell, astir among the aphidsAug 3, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 44 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
Lately my home life has felt like a camping trip. I have been waking at 3 a.m. or so and staring. Stirring at night is one thing—rolling over, drifting into semi-consciousness, having a stray thought or two either to be remembered or not remembered in the morning—but staring is quite another. In the weeks since May, when my father died, those stray thoughts have been vivid enough to seize my attention. Then they bring with them other thoughts, practical and metaphysical. After a few minutes, I’m wide awake.
Joseph Bottum, morning truantJul 6, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 41 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Morning comes like a great bird, sailing over the dark curve of the earth to illuminate the hills and trees. Dawn arrives like an angel’s burning sword, expelling night from the garden of this world. Sunrise melts to fresh dew the last wisps of frost across the lawn, a diamond sparkle in the golden angle of the sun’s first rays, and in the background always plays “Morning Mood,” the opening movement of Grieg’s first Peer Gynt Suite.
Joseph Epstein has issues.May 4, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 32 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
I have an issue with issue—with the word, that is. It pops up everywhere, meaning everything and meaning nothing. One hears of a pitcher who has rotator-cuff issues, of a landlord who has issues with pets in his buildings, of a bill up before Congress that poses jurisdictional issues. A weather reporter informs me that dressing warmly in a snowstorm is the main issue. The issue over reinstating the draft is whether soldiers serving only two years can be of serious military use.
Joseph Bottum refuses to convert.Mar 16, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 26 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
It used to happen regularly. Some poor science writer for a magazine or newspaper would try to humanize an astronomy fact: The distance light travels in a year is enormous!
Victorino Matus, useless intellectFeb 23, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 23 • By VICTORINO MATUS
According to my mechanic, that burning smell emanating from my car’s vents was caused by an oil leak near the camshaft synchronizing sensor underneath the right side of the engine. Unfortunately I had no idea what he was talking about. He lost me at camshaft.
Philip Terzian’s lone laurelFeb 16, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 22 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
Anyone who has toured a house for sale in the past few decades knows that walking into a child’s bedroom is a little like entering a trophy shop. The trophies might be neatly arranged on shelves and tabletops, or strewn haphazardly across the floor; and they might be measured in feet, rather than inches, in height. But whereas trophies by the dozen would once have suggested the home of an Olympic champion—or the lair, at the very least, of a college All-American—today they largely signify participation.
Christopher Caldwell's Bosphorus BluesDec 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 14 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
Towards midnight one night last week I walked miles down the pitch-black European shore of the Bosphorus, the 15-mile channel that splits Istanbul and Turkey in half. To any watcher of TV news, that will sound nuts. Fifteen million people have converged on Istanbul in recent decades, cramming into just-thrown-up tenements and dirty slums. The demographics are skewed towards the young, the unscrupulous, and the criminal. Turkish youths do not figure prominently among America’s biggest admirers.
Joseph Epstein knows his nature.Sep 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 01 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
This morning I was reading along in Vladimir Jabotinsky’s remarkable novel The Five, when I came to a chapter titled “Inserted Chapter, Not Intended for the Reader.” The chapter, it turns out, is about nature writing. Jabotinsky’s narrator, a writer, notes that a critic remarked on the absence of descriptions of nature in his work. He, the narrator, goes on to say the reader “doesn’t read descriptions of nature; I at least always skip over them mercilessly.” He goes on to mention that he doesn’t understand why God, among his other mistakes, created winter.
David Skinner, dedicated dishwasherJul 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 42 • By DAVID SKINNER
Recently I was fingerprinted for a work ID. Sitting at a little table across from a gentleman who, like many federal employees, wore his ID badge and metro card around his neck, I concentrated on rolling my right thumb just so over the scanner between us, from the leftmost edge of the nail to the flat, fleshy center before lifting straight up. Then I did it again. And again. And again.
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